Josh Kanter couldn’t help laughing when he heard the numbers, not because they are funny but because they’re so lopsided.
Special interests provided 92 percent of all the campaign donations that members of the 2018 Utah Legislature raised last year.
Only 3 percent came from individuals who live in the member’s district, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of disclosure forms shows. This is a pattern seen over several years.
“It is certainly disheartening to me that so much comes from special interests,” said Kanter, chairman of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, which backs campaign-finance reform.
As the Legislature convenes Monday, the statistics again raise questions about how much influence industry, political action committees and wealthy donors wield compared to regular Utahns.
Kanter isn’t cynical enough to argue that donations purchase votes, but “I certainly think donations buy access,” he said.
“Donations create access, and access creates a communications channel — and therefore that’s the perspective that they [lawmakers] are hearing,” he said.
Steve Erickson is a lobbyist for groups that don’t make political donations, such as the Crossroads Urban Center for the poor and the Utah Audubon Council. He says that indeed makes access to policymakers more difficult “because money is the mother’s milk of politics,” and more easily opens doors for groups that do give.
“It’s a little more difficult but it can be done, and generally most legislators are open to us to hear our concerns,” he said. “It just means we have to be a little noisier.”
Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, agrees that donations help bring access.
Most big donors tend to give to large numbers of lawmakers across party lines, he said, with a little extra to those who sit on relevant committees or who are in leadership positions.
“When you see giving across parties, it supports the claim they are not necessarily buying a vote,” Brown said. “If they [donors] are getting anything for it, it appears to be a chance to make their pitch.”
He added, “I don’t know how many of your readers will believe it, but research backs claims that it’s not swaying [lawmakers’] vote.”
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, believes that.
While he says politicians depend on and appreciate donations, “at the end of the day, the legislators are going to be listening to their constituents because they are the ones who vote, the ones who put us into office.”
He added, “It’s been my experience that legislators answer their emails and return phone calls from their constituents and are very keyed into their concerns and interests. Most of how they vote is based on that.”
However, Niederhauser had a somewhat different take on the influence of contributors in 2016 when he warned of teachers’ unions trying to take over the Utah state school board with big donations.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, also said big donors get no extra favors, and most lawmakers listen to all sides on debates.
“I don’t think any of my fellow colleague could be called on the carpet for being in the pocket of special interests,” he said.
Davis, though, was himself criticized two years ago when he co-sponsored a resolution praising Azerbaijan for its commitment to religious freedom — contrary to the charges of human rights groups — after he took a trip there funded through a nonprofit tied to the government’s oil company.
The Tribune analysis of campaign disclosure forms show legislators received contributions totaling a combined $1.2 million in 2017, a non-election year.
Of that, just over $1.1 million, or 92 percent, came from special or out-of-state interests such as corporations, executives, lobbyists, PACs, and party arms and politicians (who usually raise their money initially from other special interests).
In short, Utah’s 104 legislators raised an average of $11,518 last year, and $10,629 came from out-of-state or special interests.
About $33,000 of the total raised, or 3 percent, came from individuals living in the district of members receiving money (an average of $317 for each lawmaker). Regular Utah voters donated about another $59,000 outside their home districts to state lawmakers who were not their own.
Legislators who raised the most were: Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, $86,900; Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, $73,042; Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, $62,750; House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, $49,578; and House Majority Assistant Whip John Knotwell, R-Herriman, $45,190.
The largest donors in the state include: EnergySolutions, $67,700; the Utah Association of Realtors, $55,250; Comcast, $35,500; the Utah County Legislative PAC, $30,500; Orbital ATK, $28,650; SelectHealth, $24,019; Reagan Outdoor Advertising, $23,900; Altria (a tobacco company), $23,000; Utah Workers Compensation Fund, $22,400; and Maverik, $22,000.
Dave Robison, chairman of the Utah Association of Realtors’ PAC, described how his group chooses whom to support.
“We focus on honest and ethical policymakers who also support homeownership, affordable housing, small businesses and free enterprise,” he said. Robison noted it gives to people of any party who support such goals.
He added that campaigns may be expensive. “We hope that good people won’t be prevented from running for office,” with the help of its donations.
Of note, at least five lawmakers are current or former Realtors or real estate brokers, including Niederhauser. Gov. Gary Herbert is also a former Realtor.
By industry and interest group, the largest donors in 2017 were: health care, $173,420; waste treatment, $88,150; finance, $79,846; telecommunications, $76,950; real estate, $74,350; lobbying firms, $46,394; energy $43,350; education groups, $41,305; and construction firms, $29,350.
Tobacco and beer interests were also significant donors — $26,000 and $15,425, respectively — even though nine of every 10 Utah lawmakers are Mormons, whose religion preaches abstinence.
Legislators spent a combined $1.05 million in 2017, even though it was not an election year for most (but three newly appointed members did wage small campaigns among party delegates to fill vacant seats).
The spending ranged from putting money in their own pocket by repaying campaign loans to traveling, donating to local groups and buying gifts.
Several lawmakers repaid personal loans that they had previously given to their campaigns. That included $10,000 each to Sen. Dan Hemmert and Rep. Keven Stratton, both R-Orem: $4,438 to Niederhauser; $2,500 to Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden; $2,436 to Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross; and $1,024 to Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele.
Lawmakers spent at least $215,000 combined on travel — often to conferences or trade missions (including trips to Cuba), but also for trips around their districts and the state.
They donated at least another $87,000 to charitable groups. Those ranged from high school bands to Boy Scout troops, community celebrations, arts groups and church groups. Of course, that can build goodwill with local voters.
Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, paid $1,785 to the Weber County Junior Livestock Show for “purchase of a hog donated to the Utah Food Bank.”
They spent a combined $4,600 on candy to throw to spectators at parades.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, reported spending $1,000 for a tuxedo and travel costs to Washington, D.C., for Trump’s inauguration and meetings with the congressional delegation.
Buxton and Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, spent $100 each to buy National Rifle Association memberships.
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, who announced recently he is not seeking re-election, spent $2,000 for tickets on the Heber Valley Railroad in December for a “campaign meeting and kickoff and thank you for past efforts.”
Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, reported spending $89 on sporting goods for an “informal legislative get-together.” Also, he reported spending $15 on a new cellphone case “to replace the lame one that failed.”